Latino students in California still lag in college success

November 12, 2018

Study zone at Cal State Fullerton. CSU system wants to lower high fail rates.

California’s Latino students are making progress in higher education but colleges and state policymakers should take further steps to help close a continuing ethnic achievement gap, according to a new report by the Campaign for College Opportunity.

The nonprofit advocacy group headquartered in Los Angeles called for a series of reforms, including: expanding enrollment at the 10-campus University of California and the 23-campus California State University systems so there is more room for students of Latino heritage, improving community college programs that guarantee transfers to four-year-schools if students take the right courses, getting high schools to offer more college prep classes and bolstering state college financial aid.

The study also focused on remedial education, the non-credit courses in English and math that students judged to have weak skills are required to take at community colleges. (Cal State dropped remedial courses this fall.) Latino students have been disproportionately placed into those remedial courses, which are associated with lower degree completion and transfer rates, the study says. A new law mandates that community colleges change the way students are placed in the classes starting next year, ending placement exams and giving more weight to high school grades. The colleges must successfully implement that reform, the study urged.

Such changes could help all students but particularly Latinos, said the report, which was released Monday.

(The report, which is entitled “State of Higher Education for Latinx in California,” uses the term Latinx as a gender-neutral replacement for Latino and Latina, referring to people of Latin American origin. EdSource normally uses Latino to describe all those students.)

“If California is going to continue to thrive economically as a hub of innovation, technology and entrepreneurship, we must increase the educational success of a growing and disproportionally young Latinx community and ensure significantly more Latinx are prepared for college, attend college and reach their college dreams,” the document declares.

More Latino students are earning high school diplomas: 86 percent of Latino 19-year-olds had graduated high school in 2016 compared to 74 percent a decade before. And more Latino high school graduates are meeting the course requirements for admission to UC and Cal State: 39 percent compared to 25 percent in 2006.

Yet white students still do much better on those measures in part because Latinos “are more likely to attend high schools that do not provide equitable opportunities to be competitive in college admissions,” the report says. For example, it points out that predominantly white high schools tend to offer more Advanced Placement courses than mainly Latino schools do.

At the college and university level, disparities persist, the study emphasizes. About 42 percent of Latino students at community colleges earn a certificate, diploma or transfer to a bachelor’s degree school, 12 percentage points below the rate for whites. And while graduation rates for all groups have improved at UC and Cal State, some gaps between Latino and whites actually have widened. For example, only 12 percent of Latinos and 29 percent of whites who started Cal State in 2010 graduated in four years, a gap that is eight points larger than a decade before even though both rates improved over that time.

The report urges state leaders to set strategies for “closing graduation and completion gaps” affecting Latino students. Among other recommendations, it says that every high school should require all students to complete the applications for federal and state financial aid for college and that UC and Cal State need to expand the pathways that guaranteed transfer admission of community college students who successfully complete a prescribed set of courses.

The Campaign for College Opportunity document says that Latino students have been hurt by Proposition 209, the measure California voters approved in 1996 to ban the use of racial and ethnic quotas and affirmative action in public college admission. But the report does not specifically call for it to be repealed. In recommending that UC and Cal State add enrollment, the study says increasing capacity for all Californians will benefit Latinos.

At two of the state’s systems of higher education, enrollment of Latino undergraduates is close to their 47 percent share of the state’s population between ages 18 to 24. They comprise 45 percent at community colleges and 42 percent at Cal State. Yet just 27 percent of UC undergraduates are Latino.

The study says it would be better for many students to start directly at UC or Cal State rather than at community colleges, which tend to have worse completion rates than the universities. As it stands, too many Latino students who would be eligible for UC or Cal State based on the high school courses they took, their grades and test scores are starting instead at community colleges; that is partly because many come from low-income families and want to attend college part-time and hold down jobs, according to the report.

The college completion rates for Latino adults in California have improved over the past decade or so. In 2006, just 15 percent of Latino adults ages 25 to 64 in the state had an associate or bachelor’s degree and that rose to 18 percent by 2016. But the report, citing federal data, also shows big gaps: in comparison, 62 percent of Asian adults in the state, 52 percent of whites and 34 percent of blacks had earned those degrees.

The study also calls for increasing the numbers of Latino faculty and campus leaders, as the Campaign for College Opportunity has previously urged for all underrepresented minority groups and women. When students see people who look like them among professors and deans, “they will feel more welcome, engaged, supported and are more likely to succeed,” the new report stated.

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